A small reference opened a window on a larger story.
The reference was contained in an earlier column about mountain mission schools in Western Virginia, an effort that began in the 1920s to bring education to underserved populations in the mountains of this part of the world.
Related to the mission schools (those in counties adjoining Roanoke were under the auspices of the Montgomery Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church) was another movement with roots in the Progressive Movement of the 19th century, the urban establishment of what were termed “settlement houses.”
These were institutions that developed in the slums of the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest to serve immigrant populations attempting to establish and find their way in unfamiliar and often hostile circumstances.
Later, U.S. settlement houses would come to be gateways for other urban newcomers arriving through the Great Migration of African Americans from the South and impoverished whites from rural and mountain sections of the same region.
When Phyllis Albritton of Blacksburg read here about the mission schools, she picked up the phone to relate part of her own history.
“I worked at Beacon Neighborhood House, a settlement house in Chicago, in 1958,” the 81-year-old opened. “It was a settlement house that also had been established by the Presbyterian Church for people who migrated up from the South.”
The house was in a then largely black neighborhood in the northwest quadrant of the sprawling city. The house had been established some 10 years prior to her arrival there, she said.
That would have put the house in a subsequent wave of these facilities that came to Chicago after they were first established there around the turn of the 20th century.
Hull-House (founded 1889) in Chicago was among the first settlement houses in the United States, a number that would grow to more than 400. It was built on the model of Toynbee Hall (1884) in a dilapidated neighborhood in London, England, considered by historians the world’s first settlement house.
The Beacon Neighborhood house was founded by the Rev. Raymond Day.
“Rev. Day had come up to Northwestern University, where I was in school, to talk to the Presbyterian youth group there about the house and he needed volunteers,” she said.
That led to her stint at the Beacon house the following summer.
“It was a powerful experience for me,” she said.
Although she did not make a subsequent career of social work, she continued to serve underprivileged communities. Among later efforts, she cofounded an integrated preschool in 1963 segregated Charlottesville long before state-mandated kindergartens. Another project she helped establish in the New River Valley was the Valley Interfaith Childcare Center to serve low-income families.
She has a substantial resume of other public service since moving to Blacksburg in 1973.
Interest in serving the economically disadvantaged she developed at home growing up in Binghamton, New York. Owners of a store for women and children, her parents often donated clothing to the poor.
“They cared about people,” she said.
The same could be said for Laura Jane Addams, one of the leaders of the original settlement house movement.
Born in 1860, she was the daughter of wealthy Illinois businessman and Republic politician John Huy Addams, an admirer of Abraham Lincoln. Jane Addams went on to be one of the leading female reform advocates of the 19th century and beyond. Among her credits was co-founding the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Along with Ellen Gates Starr, Addams co-founded Hull-House.
“With her, idealism, serene, unafraid, militant, was always paramount,” read Addams’ 1935 New York Times obituary quoted at the Jane Addams Papers Project.
“Devoted to the cause of social and political reform, to the betterment of the economic condition of the masses, to world peace and internationalism, Miss Addams’ influence was world-wide.”
Part of that influence was the settlement house movement. The movement is distinguished from earlier efforts to assist the impoverished with simple charity.
This was explained with reference to Hull-House at the Addams papers site. Addams and Starr set aside preconceived notions to listen to the people they served detail what help they needed.
“This was a break with earlier charity work, where programs were designed for the poor.”
Staff workers lived at the houses, the better to interact with their clients. This was part of the broad philosophy of the movement. Finnish social scientist Irene Roivainen in a 2002 article credited colleague Haluk Soydan with defining the American model of settlement work through six characteristics.
The first was the social worker was considered a neighbor and not a charity giver. Second, in that role, workers developed personal relationships with those being served. For the third, the toolkit to help the disadvantaged included designing settlement facilities that also acted as cultural centers.
Fourth, settlement work is based on social justice, “not the moral responsibility of the individual.” That leads to No. 5, which is that social problems originate with the society itself and not perceived moral deficiencies of the individual. Finally, solutions to poverty and other social issues must be tied to continuing research.
Albritton’s work at the Beacon house all those years ago prompted her belief that solving social problems must begin with helping underprivileged children.
“Uplift the families and children. Give the children self-assurance, skills, a community of love.”
That pretty much covers the idea behind the mountain mission schools as well.
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